NORTH SHORE PARKS, PART THE LAST.
[Looking Swell at Split Rock Lighthouse.]
The day after the Devil’s Kettle we say goodbye to Dad and Maggie in Grand Marais—imagine a California beach town on a Scandinavian coastline and you might be halfway there—and head out to complete the final leg of our trip.
We left home intending to visit eight state parks along the north shore, and in six days we have so far managed to see four of them. In a sense, then, we are only halfway done. In another more accurate sense, however, we are ready to hit these parks running and get the hell out of here.
During the course of the day, we spend only about an hour in each park and hike about a mile—the bare minimum that we require of ourselves. This might seem like a shame, but in all honesty, without getting out into their larger backcountry sections, after a while all the parks up here start to feel very similar.
With the exception of Split Rock Light House, they are all centered around rivers with waterfalls, and while each has its own unique character, by the end of the day things start to get a little blurry. Here then, for your enjoyment, arranged in such a way as to help recreate for you some of our own confusion, are Many Pictures of Waterfalls.
From north to south (or east to west) they are:
High Falls on the Pigeon River. At 120 feet high, these are the largest falls in Minnesota.
Devil’s Kettle Falls on the Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. The water that disappears flows into a pothole just above the large mass of rock on the left side of the picture (it’s not visible here). As mentioned before, they really don’t know where the water that flows into this pothole goes. Researchers have tried dying the water and throwing ping pong balls into it in order to find its exit point, but no luck yet. The geology of the feature is also mysterious, as underground passageways of the size and kind needed to whisk away so much water aren’t found in the area.
Above are two of the many falls on the Cascade River, at Cascade River State Park. This was our first stop on the last day.
This is one of about a bazillion falls at Temperance River State Park. The deep, narrow channel hiding the falls here is typical of the section of the river that flows through the park.
High Falls on the Baptism River at Tettegouche State Park. These are the second highest falls in the state, and the highest entirely inside Minnesota.
These three ladies are enjoying the water at Gooseberry Falls State Park. This is the second of the three large falls there, if I’m remembering it correctly.
There are also falls at George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, but we didn’t get any pictures of those.
One of the interesting and appealing things about the state parks along the north shore is that they aren’t just for show. You can get right up to them and play around in the water. Cliff jumping, it turns out, is a popular pastime here, and we see people doing it in every park except at the High Falls of Grand Portage and the Baptism River in Tettegouche. It seems so common, in fact, that by the time we get to Temperance River State Park, I have begun to think that maybe we all overreacted when we saw those guys jumping off the rocks below the Devil’s Kettle. Maybe it’s not as dangerous as it looks?
“Oh no,” the ranger at the station in Temperance tells us. “We have drownings all the time. The ambulance was just here yesterday.”
[Guy in mid-jump over a pretty calm-looking Temperance River.]
According to the ranger, the parks don’t have the funds or personnel to enforce a no-swimming policy, so it doesn’t really make sense for them to have one. Swimming isn’t exactly prohibited therefore, just frowned upon. “It’s swim at your own risk,” she tells us.
Most people seem willing to risk it. At Cascade River State Park, we see a birthday party of (maybe) nine year-olds taking turns jumping off a smallish cliff while their dads look on. At Temperance a group of 30-something guys try to induce a petrified-looking kid to leap off a high ledge, and a group of adults does some serious cliff diving into the beautiful lagoon where Lake Superior meets the mouth of the Temperance River.
[The lagoon at the mouth of the Temperance River. Crazy people were jumping off the high cliff visible above the kayakers in the right of the photo.]
You might reasonably expect me to be very freaked out by all of this, but actually I kind of like it. The whole place feels very vibrant and exciting. It seems priggish and over-protective to rope people off from their own state parks, and it feels right that people should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to swim. We’re so used to being corralled and controlled in our daily lives that it feels exhilarating—almost illicit—to be able to swim whenever and wherever you want to.
That said, I don’t jump off any cliffs.
Of the river parks that we see, Temperance is probably my favorite. The little gorge/lagoon at the bottom is gorgeous, and on a warm summer day it kind of feels like a big impromptu party: kids playing, cliff divers, a group of sea kayakers paddling out of the big lake to take a breather.
Southwest of Cascade and Temperance, we arrive at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, not to be confused with Split Rock Creek State Park in the opposite corner of the state. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is one of the most popular parks in Minnesota, the main attraction here not a waterfall at all but a postcard-perfect lighthouse.
Built a century ago, the lighthouse is now run by the Minnesota Historical Society as an educational tourist attraction. Mandy and I both want to see it, but Mandy has re-injured her previously twisted ankle climbing around on all those waterfalls, and when we get to the gate we find out it costs nine dollars a person to get in.
According to a sign, the lighthouse gets 300,000 visitors a year. We do some quick (ok, actually very slow) calculations in our heads. 300,000 visitors at 9 dollars a pop. That’s 2.7 million dollars a year. We both decide that the lighthouse can probably do without our business.
Instead, we clamor around on the lake shore fore a while, which turns out to be a good decision. Just south of the lighthouse is a beautiful, quiet bay, complete with a quintessential north shore-pebble beach and its own island.
This turns out to be Mandy’s favorite spot on the whole trip, and we both agree that we could sit here all day. Time is pressing, however. We’ve still got one more park to see, and after another short drive we finally get to Gooseberry Falls State Park, the southernmost (westernmost) park on the north shore.
Gooseberry is only forty miles from Duluth, so it gets a lot of visitors. Maybe as a result, it also seems more serious about keeping people out of the water. There are signs posted prohibiting it, though they seem to get less vehement the closer you get to the mouth of the river.
Inside the informative visitor’s center, a young ranger tears children’s drawings off the wall. “I have to take down the ones with naughty words, and the ones that encourage swimming,” she tells us.
As previously mentioned, this area had ten inches of rain and massive flash floods a couple weeks ago. In Gooseberry there are areas of debris, as well as flattened grass and downed trees. In places, small stands of cedar cling to bare rock like tentacle-footed Ents tip-toeing across it. We can’t tell if this is how they always look, or if some of the soil has recently been washed away.
I remember, from a previous trip that the shoreline here is also very beautiful. Mandy’s ankle is hurting, however, and we’re both pretty exhausted. Also, according to a ranger wiping windows back at the visitor’s center, a storm is rolling in.
We walk a short distance down a trail below the falls, but don’t make it to the lake. “Just let me run up and see what’s around the corner,” I tell Mandy, jogging ahead up a long series of wide steps into the woods.
Around the bend is more trees, but there, only a few steps off the path, I have startled a mother deer and her fawn. They do not run away. Instead they stand, breathing through delicate nostrils, staring at me. After a little while the mother dips her head and they move slowly off, lying down in deeper undergrowth.
[Bridge to beautiful grassy nowhere, Gooseberry Falls State Park.]
We leave the park. Overhead, storm clouds gather. We have six hours to go yet, and won’t be home until one o’clock in the morning. We have seen nature, however, or at least what is left of it. We have communed with deer and leaches. We have hiked forty miles and fended our food from bears and slept seven nights in a tent. We have seen eight state parks, twelve in total now, and on the way home we stop for Taco John’s, the finest drive-through Mexican dining available in the upper Midwest, to celebrate our achievement.